Pictorial Verse or the Atelier of a Poet-printer
By Vincent Broqua

E. E. Cummings, La Guerre Impressions (The Impressions War), translated and edited by Jacques Demarcq
Gerardmer, AEncrages & Co., 2001,13 Euros

In Cummings most experimental work, he borders on the untranslatable. We know the famous:


where the reader descends and re-ascends the poem, reconstructing fractured words and syntax. The illegibility of this text, far from random, is in fact Cummings’ poetic strategy. The fragments and disarticulated pieces of the poem constitute an intricate structural framework of signs and syntax. An E.E. Cummings poem reads like a poem picture.

This book, with translation by Jacques Demarcq and produced by publisher AEncrages & Co., is a remarkably beautiful presentation of this pictorial poetry, or poetry plastique.

Jacques Demarcq is acclaimed as a poet, an editor of the journal TXT (from 1979 to 1985) and a talented translator. La Guerre Impressions isn’t Demarcq’s first Cummings translation. He has also translated 95 Poems (Flammarion, 1983), I: six nonlectures (Clémence Hiver, 2001) and No Thanks (Clémence Hiver, 2001). For this new publication, Demarcq has pulled fourteen of the fifteen poems from two sections of Tulips & Chimneys, a book first published in 1923 (in an abridged version) and then in 1937 (closer to the genuine 1922 manuscript).

E.E. Cummings is a poet greatly effected by war. The audaciousness of his grammar is very much in the service of his pacifism. Despite his politics, however, his work avoids discursive or polemical modes. The details of his poetry as well as his humor and satire guide the reader:

                     fingers of
                  prurient philosophers pinched
                                    (pg. 18)

Of course, the humor and sarcasm are accompanied by the presence of death just around the corner, or perhaps always present, as in this modern ‘vanity’:

                  but i have seen
                  death’s clever enormous voice
                  which hides in a fragility
                  of poppies
                                    (pg. 14)

The break, “ a / crucifix which smashes into several / pieces and is hurriedly picked up and / thrown on the ash-heap” as it opens with “graze of splintered/ normality” reminds us that the poet is constantly playing with linguistic fragments, with the scattering of text and signs.

“In the street of the sky night walks scattering poems.”
(pg. 35)

The fragility of the poem also comes from the letter, suspended in a typographical void, capable of supporting the entire poem

                                    (pg. 29)

in order to become the collection’s eponymous impression. This impression is first of all what is written into each poem and also, more literally, the impression of the poem on the page – the printed poem.

When we reach the collection’s final poem we encounter a new question, the voice of the poetic ‘I.’ The speaker/poet has become one with the poem: those “sleeping curves of my body.” are also the verses of the poem winding across the page; thus “the mystery/of my flesh” (pg. 36) is complete. The mystery of the poem’s flesh is made more vivid thanks to the engravings of Anne Slacik, who expands the book’s two sections and makes even more palpable the materiality of the page; but also thanks to the fine work of the publishing house AEncrages & Co., based in Gerardmer, are master printers in the classic sense. The traditional printing processes they use, including manual composition, linotype and typographic impression, assure an artisinal quality that gives each of their books the status of prestigious art object. Among the titles they have published, one finds notable collaborations between poets and artists such as Le Fil à quoi tient notre vie by Michel Butor and illustrated by Joel Leick (1996), L’attente by Jacques Rebotier with drawings by Joel Leick (1998) or Lire un bon livre by Charles Juliet with drawings and photography by Jean-Michel Marchetti (1999). Moreover, this publishing house from the Vosges published in 1988 an interesting anthology of foreign poets including David Antin, Ted Berrigan, Norma Cole, Sylvia Plath, Andrea Zanzotto and Louis Zukofsky, all translated by French poets (including Guglielmi, Gleize, Deluy, Noel and Para). AEncrages & Co. has longstanding engagement with contemporary American poetry.

Their printing technique allows a reader to make physical contact with the impression of words on the page. Between this, the pleasure of reading Cummings in Demarcq’s translation, and letting one’s eye rove through Anne Slacik’s engravings, one cannot help but be drawn to this book/art object. The book brings a reader close to that which Isabelle Alfandary said of Cummings’ text as it is typed upon the page:

“The heart of the poetic journey seems to reside in exposing the unsuspected powers of writing. E.E. Cummings explores the emotive power of the written sign, to see how the printed sign makes possible a technological revolution. “

For more information about AEncrages & Co. or to get their catalogue of titles, visit their Web address at aencrages.roland.chopard@wanadoo.fr, or write to AEncrages & Co., 5 Place du Vieux-Gerardmer, 88400 Gerardmer, France

We also note the publication of a beautiful book by Isabelle Alfandry on E. E. Cummings, E.E. Cummings ou la miuscule lyricque in the collection “Voix Americaines” published by Belin.

Translated by Caroline Crumpacker